DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals earn forgettable win over 49ers to stay atop NFC West

Oct 10, 2021, 5:49 PM | Updated: 5:52 pm

GLENDALE — Victories last forever. Even when they’re instantly forgettable.

The Cardinals played one of those games on Sunday.

They did just enough to remain unbeaten, surviving a flag-filled fistfight with the 49ers. They are 5-0 for the first time since moving to Arizona, with a three-game lead over two of their three NFC West opponents.

So what does this game prove?

“How tough we are,” wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins said. “Not just physically but mentally. Things not going our way and still not giving up …”

The victory was something of a gift. The 49ers were relying on Trey Lance, a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start. Lance competed hard and frequently put his face in harm’s way, but there was no scheming around the experience he does not possess. A healthy Jimmy Garoppolo probably wins this game for the visitors.

Still, the victory was also progress, as the Cardinals have a long, sordid history of losing to underwhelming, second-string quarterbacks.

“I think it was good for us to prove we could win a gritty game like that,” defensive end Zach Allen said.

There were other issues. Rush defense remains a glaring weakness. The referees made a mockery of the contest and should be denied their game checks. The bipartisan crowd was another slap in the face for an Arizona team that ranked among the most exciting in the NFL.

As for the offense:

Ever wake up from a long nap in a fog and unable to function? That’s how the Cardinals appeared on Sunday. Kyler Murray never got into a rhythm. The offensive line struggled to create a clean pocket for their quarterback, and this time, Murray couldn’t scramble his way into big plays. Their indispensable center, Rodney Hudson, hurt his ribs while tight end Maxx Williams left the field on a cart following a gruesome knee injury.

The latter was a shame, given Williams’ enthusiasm and enhanced role in 2021. It also produced a heartwarming scene. After the play, the entire Cardinals sideline ran to the other side of the field to wish Williams the best. It was a tangible sign of the great chemistry that seems to be fueling this group.

There were other positive developments. The defense made four fourth-down stops. One of them came at the goal line, when Isaiah Simmons delivered a crushing hit on Lance. Two of the fourth-down stops occurred in the fourth quarter, when the 49ers had a chance to take the lead. J.J. Watt played his most impactful game to date.

“Incredible,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “I’ve never seen four fourth-down stops.”

Said Hopkins: “That’s championship football.”

When told the 49ers converted just 1-of-5 fourth down conversions, Budda Baker couldn’t resist:

“If I was in school right now and I got one out of five, I would not be happy,” he said.

The game also showcased the dizzying skills of Rondale Moore, a rookie with enough electricity to be Murray’s stunt double. And DeAndre Hopkins made a series of big plays down the stretch to put the game away, breaking Larry Fitzgerald’s record for most receptions before the age of 30.

“I have to thank all 20 of my quarterbacks,” Hopkins deadpanned.

Maybe it’s further proof that our luck is changing. The Suns and Mercury have stacked consecutive Finals appearances. Arizona State might be the best team in the Pac-12 and the Cardinals are the only unbeaten team in the NFL. And despite the slogging nature of Sunday’s win, Kingsbury pointed out that beating San Francisco is always a Sunday worth celebrating, given the 49ers’ culture, their competitiveness and sideline energy.

In the end, the Cardinals ended up on the left side of the standings and the right side of history. And when you’re sitting atop the league’s toughest division, that’s more than good enough.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com.  Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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